We will be, or at least we should be, pondering the visit of Pope Benedict for a long time to come. I do not agree with the widely expressed view that this will be his only pastoral visit to America. To judge by the vitality exhibited, which seemed to grow with his every day here, this may be a pontificate as long as that of Leo XIII, who died at age ninety-three. Benedict just turned eighty-one. He may return in five years or so to see how we have responded to his proposal this time around.
As some of us have been repeating incessantly, the important thing is to listen carefully to what he is saying. And then to download all the addresses and read them carefully, and then read them again. During his visit, he laid out an astonishingly comprehensive program for the renewal of the Church and the Church’s witness to the world. Consider, too, that his argumentsand he is always making argumentsmust be understood within the context of more than four decades of scholarship intimately tied to devotional and pastoral reflection.
For those who really want to understand the mind of Benedict, we have no better study than Aidan Nichols’ The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger. Admittedly, that book is twenty years old, and we have to hope that Father Nichols has a sequel in the works. Meanwhile, we are greatly assisted by Tracey Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith, just out from Oxford. Rowland is an Australian and is part of the international Communio circle. She is, in my view, too taken with the mainly Anglican “Radical Orthodoxy” project with its campaign against sundry manifestations of “liberalism,” including a caricature of “neoconservatism.” But in this book that is only a minor distraction.
Ratzinger’s Faith is a lucid introduction that places his thought within a variety of schools that have emerged since the Second Vatican Council and addresses his understanding of revelation, Scripture, and tradition. It also clarifies his commitment to, along with his criticism of, modernity, with its devotion to freedom and reason, and dispels misunderstandings of his view of the Church’s social and political witnessmisunderstandings largely stemming from his familiar critique of liberation theologies. Not least of the merits of Rowland’s study is its succinct treatment of Ratzinger on liturgy and devotional practices, highlighting his debt to Hans Urs von Balthasar, a subject on which I touched in last Friday’s posting, “Benedict and Beauty.”
Recall that the theme Benedict chose for his American visit was “Christ Our Hope.” The radically Christocentric character of Christian faith is the theme that holds together what might be called, if the phrase had not been used and abused in other connections, the seamless garment of his thought. “Christ Our Hope,” of course, picks up on his second encyclical or teaching letter, Spe Salviwe are saved in hope. That, in turn, extends the reflection of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas EstGod is love.
Already in the message preliminary to his visit, Benedict refers to Christ as “the human face of God.” This is a recurring phrase in his writings, pointing to the foundation of what is aptly described as his Christian humanism. Well into the pontificate of John Paul II, Avery Cardinal Dulles concluded that the best phrase to describe the message of that great pope is “prophetic humanism.” The question of who influenced whom and precisely how during the decades of intimate collaboration between Ratzinger and John Paul the Great will likely never be resolved definitely. It is beyond dispute that the influences were mutual and intense, and “prophetic humanism” fits Benedict as well as it fits John Paul the Great.
Of particular importance in this connection is their understanding of the council’s document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et SpesJoy and Hope. John Paul had a considerable measure of proprietorial pride in that document, having been closely involved in its drafting. When questioned about whether it was not excessively optimistic about historical progress, he would answer, with just a touch of defensiveness, that, if that was the case, it was at least “an evangelical optimism.” There is of course no question of either pope questioning the Spirit-guided authority of conciliar documents, but the wholehearted acceptance of a document’s authority does not necessarily entail an agreement that it addressed adequately the subject at hand.
Ratzinger has over the years been quite candid in saying that the first part of Gaudium et Spes offers such a roseate view of human progress that one is left wondering why the redemptive work of Christ is really necessary. Both John Paul and Benedict repeatedly invoke section 22 of the constitution, where it is said that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but also the revelation of man to himself. This Christological insight is the hermeneutical key, if you will, to understanding the prophetic humanism of both John Paul and Benedict. The “human face of God” is both the revelation of God and the revelation of man in the image of God.
Benedict is relentless in his critique of every form of nominalism, voluntarism, and a naked command-theory of morality. This has everything to do with his “controversial” comments on Islam at Regensburg University in September 2006. It was said that this was a sharp departure from the more irenic approach of John Paul II, but the questions put to Islam by the latter in his best-selling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, are every bit as incisive as what was said at Regensburg. The Christian understanding of God is not that of an omnipotent deity handing down commands from on high, but that of God’s emptying himself of glory (kenosis) in order to become one with his human creatures, inviting and enabling us to be lifted up by participation in his eternal life. In other words, incarnation; in other words, “the human face of God.”
This theme is nicely caught in Ratzinger’s remarks, a few months before he was elected pope, at the funeral of Luigi Giussani, the founder of Community and Liberation. “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moral system. Christianity is an encounter, a love story, an event.” Of course nobody is more assiduous in defending the intellectual and doctrinal tradition of the Church, including moral doctrine, but the point is that all of that only coheres in the encounter with the human face of God, Jesus Christ.
This encounter is not simply a private spiritual experience of “knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Christ encountered is the logosthe word and reason that is both the source and reason of all that is. It is an intensely personal encounter but never just a private encounter. The revelation of God in Christ is emphatically public. As he said at the Washington meeting with leaders of other religions, “Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth.” And at the United Nations, he underscored that the Christian cannot divest himself of faith in this great truthor stifle his witness to this great truthin order to gain admission to the public square. All religions and worldviews are, whether they explicitly recognize Christ or not, informed to a greater or lesser degree by the logos that makes possible, through the exercise of the gift of reason, a measure of common understanding pertinent to the right ordering of our life together.
During those seven days in our country, Benedict set forth to different audiences a comprehensive vision of hope for the Church and the world. In a forthcoming issue of First Things, I intend to offer a more detailed analysis of the several addresses and how they inform and reinforce one another, resulting in a proposal of “Christ Our Hope” that is aptly described as prophetic humanism.